Does online shopping really create more food and packaging waste?

* 4 min read
We’ve all seen the pictures on social media: a pen delivered in a huge box filled with brown paper, a CD in a box too big to fit through your letterbox.

Over the past couple of years, online retailers have taken a real hammering in the media for transporting air in a bid to consolidate delivery box stocks. But it isn’t a situation that needs to continue. Our pack science director Gillian Garside-Wight believes there are real solutions that could reduce packaging waste and drive innovation, and that Amazon has the opportunity to lead the pack.

"The packaging currently used by Amazon is as excessive as ordering a package through drone delivery and receiving it via fighter jet. Amazon currently uses standard sized corrugate boxes or book/DVD envelopes for most of its deliveries, yet very few items come through mainstream postal routes: most go to drop off points or are delivered by courier. You simply don’t need that much cardboard for these delivery methods – all you’re doing is increasing wastage and transporting a lot of air."

Gillian Garside-Wight, Packaging Technology Director

We know that standard packaging formats and sizes aid their operations, ensuring that there aren’t hundreds of types of packaging in their distribution area, but that’s why so much stuff arrives in way too much packaging, or how about no packaging at all? If the product doesn’t require additional protection, you can always stick the delivery label on top instead of enclosing it in another box. And for Prime customers, Amazon could consider incentivising them with returnable packaging which is collected when they get their next delivery.

So, the potential to reduce secondary packaging waste is there; as with most major changes, it just needs someone to make the first move. And it isn’t just retrofitting – thinking online first when it comes to structural packaging could revolutionise the way ecommerce deliveries work.

One of the main benefits of doing your grocery shop online is buying in bulk, letting the delivery van, not you, take the strain. In high cost but low interest areas, such as cleaning products and frozen food, you can actually reduce packaging waste by buying the bigger pack you might otherwise not have wanted to transport home. And because the product doesn’t have to be displayed on shelf, refill packs, or even relatively unbranded packs can be bought and decanted at home.

Cost to the customer could be reduced, as well as the cost to the environment. And at a time when retro is in demand, could we see a resurgence in more lasting branded packaging, like the OXO tin.

A need for convenience and ease of use has also fuelled a move towards meal solutions, with the likes of HelloFresh and Gousto capitalising on the increased spending power of time-poor but cash-rich consumers, delivering just the right amount of everything to their customers’ door.

At just one per cent of UK grocery spendix, the recipe box market is still relatively small and so far, with limited financial success, according to The Grocer. Yet some supermarkets are already eyeing this sector, with Waitrose and the Co-Op both venturing into the recipe box arena. Because although sales are so far relatively small, many recipe box companies are seeing tripledigit sales increases.


However, while providing just the right amount of ingredients to make each meal may mean less food is wasted, individually packed single tablespoons of oil and multiple sachets of mayonnaise does mean overall packaging waste increases.

Bloom & Wild is a new online flower shop that has taken the art of online delivery formats the extra mile. Through their letterbox flowers range, bunches of flowers arrive in post box sized cardboard envelopes, eliminating the need for water buckets, cellophane and large cardboard boxes that conventional florists would send. Plus, the convenience of not having to be in to receive your flowers makes it very consumer friendly.

the eleanor top downIt’s this type of fresh thinking that should encourage other retailers to consider their contribution to reducing packaging waste by considering how consumers need to receive established brands after the point of purchase.